Jennifer Chang is Bitch Media’s 2021 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
Twinkling champagne lights dotting the trees, fake snow in storefronts, Christmas-carol playlists at the supermarket: Is it the most wonderful time of the year, or simply a Hallmark Christmas Movie? For an ever-growing audience of viewers, they are one and the same, and each December’s new slate of titles is a cause for celebration. The phrase “Hallmark Christmas Movie” has become a shorthand that doesn’t refer exclusively to a Christmas movie aired on the actual Hallmark Channel; rather, it’s a very specific genre of holiday rom-com. If you can’t name a specific one, chances are you’ll recognize their distinctive tropes. There’s the protagonist, invariably a plucky career woman who is not like other girls in being singularly unaffected by the prospect of romance and who has returned, often grudgingly, to the small town or suburb she escaped years earlier. There’s her romantic foil, generally a small-town everyman who is handsome but not obnoxious about it. Other stock elements include pushy parents, a friend or relative who loathes anything festive because they once experienced a personal tragedy, a local ball or gala that inexplicably takes place on Christmas Eve, and a sassy best friend (often non-white or queer) who always lacks ambitions of their own but exist to provide encouragement and plot exposition. The dialogue is uninspired; the movie posters are indistinguishable. And most importantly, Hallmark Christmas Movies are network-agnostic, snowy-white, and chaste.
The perfected formula of the HCM is rooted in the Hallmark Channel’s origins in religious programming: It began as a collaboration between two cable channels, the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network and the American Christian Television system, which consolidated in 1993 as the Faith and Values Channel, adding secular programming like cooking shows and family-oriented programs to its offerings. Another rebrand, as The Odyssey Network, further winnowed the channel’s religious programming, and in 2001 the Hallmark Channel began building itself into a holiday-movie juggernaut with some inspiration from competitor ABC Family, which launched its “25 Days of Christmas” franchise in the mid-1990s. “We did look at what ‘25 Days of Christmas’ had become in people’s minds and said, ‘Wait a minute. We have a brand and a hundred-year legacy … We should lean into that as much as we can and do more of it,” a Hallmark executive told Business Insider in 2017.
It was an instant success, and Hallmark began to reorganize its programming around seasonal holidays like Christmas (“Winterfest”), Valentine’s Day (“Countdown to Valentine’s Day”), Halloween (“Fall Harvest”), and Thanksgiving (“Five Nights Stuffed Full of Original Holiday Movies”). By 2016, the network had divided its schedule into themed “seasons” with the goal of positioning itself as what Bill Abbott, the then-CEO of Hallmark’s media arm called “a year-round destination for celebrations” that, naturally, aligned with occasions to buy Hallmark Cards. And despite a trend toward more provocative and morally complex content, people still take comfort in the glossy familiarity of both holiday rom-coms and traditional media: As Business Insider reported, Hallmark “has milked the Christmas stories to consistently deliver strong live ratings (meaning people watch when the movies are broadcast, not later, say, over the internet), while its rivals grapple with cable cord-cutting and competition from streaming services. Or, as E! puts it, “Who wouldn’t want to retreat to the idyllic escape provided by Hallmark for two hours?”
The sparkling cleanliness of HCMs is the result of a well-oiled production machine: Each boasts a rigid nine-act structure and is shot in just 15 days. All content must fit within a specific vision for the channel, whose Standards & Practices are conservative even for a family-friendly channel. (The author of a 2011 blog post titled “Bleepin’ Censorship on the Bleepin’ Hallmark Channel” noted that its reruns of Frasier and The Golden Girls even censored the word “ass.”) An anonymous Hallmark movie writer told Entertainment Weekly in 2018 that in the case of the channel’s Christmas movies, “Everything goes through a mildness filter … It’s like everything gets sanded, filed down so the sharp edges come off.”
These stringent rules continue to define the content we expect from HCMs. When cable TV was the only alternative to network programming, our views of reality and the world we live in were shaped in large part by syndicated media; the advent of streaming platforms, however, has played a significant role in the genre’s evolution. (“You can have somebody get drunk in a Netflix movie, but not a Hallmark movie,” noted one of the writers interviewed in Entertainment Weekly.) And yet, the campiness of Netflix’s 2017 hit A Christmas Prince, which was the subject of much ridicule at the time of its release—BuzzFeed dubbed it “the best worst Christmas movie ever made”—earned it a cult following because it adhered to many of the same tropes of Hallmark movies. It was so successful that two sequels were greenlit shortly afterward—A Christmas Prince 2: The Royal Wedding and A Christmas Prince 3: The Royal Baby (both of which were also memed to hell). The trilogy took the conventional formulas for both Hallmark movies and successful womanhood and turbocharged both into a predictable progression—in other words, exactly what HCM fans want.
Because guilty pleasures are often feminized, there’s a lot of self-deprecation involved in justifying people’s enjoyment of these movies. To watch HCMs earnestly feels like projection; to watch them ironically feels like legitimate cultural criticism, a more socially acceptable method of consumption. The emergence of reality TV- and true crime-related cultural criticism demonstrates a fundamental compulsion to derive meaning from frivolity. But, of course, cynicism does not necessarily yield thoughtful critique—and sometimes, it is simplicity that is most satisfying.
The familiarity of the HCM structure actually releases a steady stream of dopamine in the brain; psychologically, it is human nature to find them satisfying. “The human brain loves patterns and the predictability is cognitively rewarding … Those predictable story arcs that draw on the standard patterns we recognize from fairytales offer comfort by presenting life as simple and moralistic,” a behavioral scientist explained in a 2019 NBC News piece that credited HCMs with providing mental-health benefits during what can be a particularly taxing time. HCMs can function as a sort of reliable balm for the presumed emotional state of the populace, which may be why, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Hallmark Channel ran a belated holiday-movie marathon. (By December of that year, U.S. News reported that Hallmark’s ratings had risen 2 percent—a significant year-to-year increase by modern television standards—over 2019’s holiday season. Unsurprisingly, watching people live out fairytale endings can be a comforting escape in times of distress.
The longing for escape is natural amidst a particularly chaotic news cycle, but it also echoes conservative sentiments and a desire to return to “the good old days” that have become ugly weapons in ginned-up battles to control the narratives of history. In her 1992 book The Way We Never Were, author and historian Stephanie Coontz noted how this rose-colored rewriting of the past is used for political gain: “As time passes, the actual complexity of our history—even of our own personal experience—gets buried under the weight of the ideal image … [selective memory is] a serious problem when it leads grown-ups to try to recreate a past that either never existed at all or whose seemingly attractive features were inextricably linked to injustices and restrictions on liberty that few Americans would tolerate today.”
HCMs not only indulge a willful ignorance of past injustice and political inequality, but actively cater to it, positioning themselves as “apolitical” to appease a dominant culture built on the suffering and oppression of other people. This weaponized imagination is frequently used as rationale for denying progress: the implication of the existence of “the good old days” is, of course, that change (and therefore progress) or any uncomfortable departure from the norm, is inherently bad. This helps explain why, despite evolving societal desires and attitudes, HCMs have remained consistent distillations of the status quo. They position whiteness and heteronormativity as the norm and the gold standard, casting anything in opposition to this as deviance both subtly (by the exclusion of non-white and queer characters outside of stereotypical roles) and overtly (by framing wholesome, white, heterosexual love as the natural aspiration for any female characters), so it’s interesting to see the introduction of HCMs that depart from a white, Christian, hetero-dominant worldview. It reveals a multifaceted dilemma: Inclusion and representation for traditionally marginalized communities can be empowering, and it arguably facilitates equality, but what does it mean for people of color and queer people to be slotted into the existing contours of goodness and purity as defined by white supremacy and heteronormativity?
If signaling to marginalized communities that white/Christian/heterosexual cosplay is the only route to full humanity, do the results of that equal mainstream success—or just conditional tolerance?
One of Hallmark’s latest releases, Boyfriends of Christmas Past, features all of the typical trappings of Hallmark movies. There’s a jaded career woman who’s too busy for love, a proclaimed distaste for Christmas, a parent who doubles as a moral compass. But the film’s two leads are Asian American: Boyfriends scatters cultural cues throughout its narrative—our heroine, Lauren, tenderly calls her father “appa”; they eat tteokbokki and kimbap alongside sugar cookies, and Lauren’s friend Nate teases her about both her inability to cook and her plan to bring soju (a Korean alcohol) for Christmas dinner. Yet the storyline itself is unaffected by her ethnicity, and perhaps that’s the point—where the holidays are concerned, maybe we’re not so different after all! Should it matter that such a drag-and-drop approach to tweaking the HCM formula erases the obstacles that minority and marginalized communities actually face in striving for the picture-perfect Hallmark life?
The cost-benefit negotiation of representation is a perpetual struggle that historically involves those who don’t fit the dominant mold shrinking or contorting themselves to do so, whether that’s abiding by the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, having their hairstyles policed by employers, or capitulating to surgery, lightening creams, and other cosmetic interventions. The asterisk on America’s claim to melting-pot meritocracy is that inclusion is earned via assimilation. If signaling to marginalized communities that white/Christian/heterosexual cosplay is the only route to full humanity, do the results of that equal mainstream success—or just conditional tolerance?
There’s a fundamental tension between assimilation and radicalization—people of color and queer people will not be fully equal until they achieve equal representation in HCMs. But a larger question is why this is positioned as aspirational in the first place. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the star of Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, who found herself at the center of a successful Netflix series at just 18 years old and covering Teen Vogue at 19, put it succinctly: “We don’t need, yet again, people of color inhabiting the shells of white people,” she said, referring to the recent “colorblind casting” of iconic roles like Spiderman’s Mary Jane Watson (Zendaya) and Ariel in The Little Mermaid (Halle Bailey). Vox writer Terry Nguyen excoriates the limitations of performative (and often exploitative) representation in her Over Lychee Martinis newsletter: “Representation can be meaningful and moving, but it shouldn’t be a work’s sole function. Instead, it risks defining the subjects and stories by their other-ness, at the expense of reinforcing existing paradigms of whiteness.”
In cycles of progress and backlash, Hallmark makes change palatable as a happy medium, adopting a “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” persuasion without acknowledging how it contributes to this existing tension. The media we make and consume reflects what we believe our ideal world should look like, and while holiday movies depict “the most wonderful time of the year,” their current incarnations highlight the deficiencies of HCMs’ trademark snowglobe magic. The shifting standards for media demand that we reimagine what our world (and its televised döppelganger) look like: not just “What is progress,” but “How does progress look different when people from underrepresented communities are in control?” Representation ultimately fails as a measure of progress because it is constantly affixed to a moving target; it demands inclusion without doing the heavy lifting of interrogating the reason for its necessity. Representation is not a goalpost—it is a gateway, a stepping stone to better, richer things. While HCMs may lack substance, they offer the opportunity to reevaluate the real charm of the holiday season and our attitudes toward it.
For people that have a love-hate relationship with HCMs, watching them is not pure cynicism nor earnestness; it is a little of both, and a hopefulness that they can do better. In the meantime, there will always be a feeling of settling for what doesn’t quite satisfy. As former Bitch editor Rachel Charlene Lewis wrote of her disappointment with the queer narrative in Hulu’s Happiest Season (20200: “I will rewatch Happiest Season many times over, much like I watched The L Word 15 times in a row when I realized I was gay, and much like I’ve spent hours clinging to YouTube compilations of the smallest of gay breadcrumbs in otherwise straight shows. We haven’t reached the point where there are enough of these films for me to feel like I can really pass any sort of judgment; how do you judge the first, second, or third of something?” Perhaps one day we can write movies that capture all of the magic of the holiday season that fits the vision of the future we want, beyond the dazzling snowiness and visions of sugarplums.